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Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission (ABDM) has the potential to be the ‘UPI moment’ for healthcare in India by leveraging public goods such as the Aadhaar unique identity number and pre-paid digital voucher eRupi, National Health Authority chief executive R.S. Sharma said.

ABDM, India’s national digital health mission, can become a platform for private companies’ digital health services, Sharma said, adding that the mission will seek to integrate and partner with startups in the sector.

ABDM will initially create health IDs, which citizens can use to access medical records or seek health services. “I am confident that ABDM can be the UPI moment for healthcare. It has several common principles around interoperability, consent and security. The fact that health is a more complex issue makes the challenge even more interesting," Sharma said in an interview.

ABDM hopes to build a platform for digital health through common standards and open application programming interfaces (APIs), a software that allows two applications to talk to each other. The team working on the platform is in talks with several companies in the healthcare ecosystem to integrate their services.

Sharma, who previously led the Unique Identification Authority of India, said the platform holds “immense potential for change". He says the biggest use case is to build “longitudinal health records" that citizens can access even in case of a loss of the physical copy of medical records wherever they are.

The second use-case is where ABDM seems to be taking on digital healthcare providers such as e-pharmacies and telemedicine startups. The National Health Authority (NHA) is looking to open its platform for registered healthcare facilities, medical professionals and even pharmacy stores.

As the pandemic raged, states developed systems to give real-time updates on availability of hospital beds, ICUs or oxygen facilities. However, the shortage of these facilities and the lack of options to book beds meant the system did not take off. However, for vaccinations, CoWin became a one-stop system. Despite initial hiccups, it is now being used by other digital service providers to display available vaccination slots.

Sharma said he is hoping that at any point in time, individuals will be able to seek out the nearest point of care, be it an emergency, a certain speciality, or availability of beds, drugs, blood, seek telemedicine consultation. “The ultimate goal is to ensure loss of pay and out-of-pocket expenses are brought down," he said.

NHA also plans to bring in private entities after building a network and defining common rules. However, Sharma said the platform will not compete with them. Eventually, it will be the participating entities that will provide digital health services, he said.

“ABDM will be providing the network and common set of rules that everyone participating must comply with. It will act in a complementary manner to the digital health services being already provided and help break down separate silos they are working in," Sharma added.

As the person in charge of the Aadhaar rollout, Sharma faced criticism over privacy issues. The exclusion of social services due to the lack of Aadhaar hurt India’s most vulnerable people; in healthcare, the concerns are even more serious. But Sharma says individuals will have complete choice over which records they wish to link or remove from their account.

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